The lottery is a form of gambling that gives away cash or prizes in exchange for a small risk. It’s a popular pastime for many Americans, who spend about $80 billion per year on tickets. The money can be used for anything from paying off debt to building an emergency fund. But there are also serious problems with lotteries, which are a form of gambling that can be particularly harmful to poor people.
Making decisions or determining fates by casting lots has a long history, with dozens of examples in the Bible and numerous ancient Roman and other inscriptions. But the lottery as we know it was born in the eighteenth century, and was introduced to America with the help of English immigrants. In the early days of American statehood, it was a common way for states to raise funds for projects, including the building of roads and schools. It also provided a painless alternative to taxes, which many Protestants viewed as sinful.
As a result, it spread rapidly across the country, even though it was forbidden by many religious groups. But in the nineteenth century, the popularity of lotteries began to wane, and they were sometimes criticized for contributing to poverty. In addition, the promises of instant riches were a poor substitute for jobs with secure wages, benefits such as health insurance, and retirement. In the nineteen-sixties, growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding caused by demographic changes and rising inflation. It became difficult to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, and the long-held American promise that hard work and education would make you richer than your parents ceased to be true for most working people.
In Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery,” a middle-aged housewife named Tessie Hutchinson is late to the village’s Lottery celebration because she has to finish washing her breakfast dishes. When she draws her ticket from the box, she discovers that it is marked with a black spot. From then on, her family will be targeted for persecution by the villagers.
While the villagers’ behavior is disturbing, it is not surprising. They are conditioned by generations of practice and feel powerless to change things. In fact, the villagers believe that they will return to primitive times if they do not continue with their Lottery. They have no other justification for their actions, other than that they are following tradition. Their blind acceptance of the ritual is what makes the story so terrifying. But it is also what makes it so realistic. People who play the lottery often have quote-unquote systems that are not based on statistics, and have irrational beliefs about lucky numbers and stores and times of day to buy tickets. But the truth is, no number is any luckier than any other, and any number can be chosen at any time. In other words, it is just pure chance.